22-12-2000

Just as people in Great Britain watch Mary Poppins or The Wizard of Oz at Xmas - despite the fact that they've seen it dozens of times and know it off by heart - there are some film classics that are staples of the Czech TV diet at this time of year: fairytales. But there's often more to a fairytale than meets the eye. And how have Xmas celebrations changed over the past century? Find out more in this Xmas edition of From the Weeklies. Here's Daniela Lazarova.

Xmas is just around the corner and, as every year, millions of Czechs will join their children in watching dozens of traditional Czech fairytales. Once Upon a Time There Was a King, The Princess with the Golden Star, The Proud Princess and The Emperor's Baker are all much loved film classics, some of them dating back to the fifties.

Fairytales are soothing, Tyden magazine says, which is probably why they are so popular with children and adults alike. They represent a structured and clear-cut world, with set behavioral patterns and a happy end. Unlike in real life, one can be certain that in fairytales good always triumphs over evil.

"To film a successful fairytale for the Czech public you need certain staple ingredients," says the most successful fairytale director of the 90s Zdenek Troska. "You need between one and three princesses, of which at least one must be beautiful and good, a prince who will overcome insurmountable obstacles to win the princess's heart, evil powers in whatever form, a real dark forest, a deep lake and a real Czech castle, of which luckily we have plenty".

In the communist years fairytales brought relief from widespread propaganda -there was only so much censors could do with them. Even so in the tales filmed in the 50s there are touches of communist propaganda that raise many a laugh, and those filmed in the 60s and 80s contain signs of rebellion.

For instance in the Emperor's Baker there is a lyric that goes "If we pool everything we have we'll all be rich", or the baker divides the rolls he made for the Emperor's table among the poor and goes to prison for it. An honest fisherman gets to marry the princess and says he'll stay a fisherman thank you very much and the princess shall come and live in his hut, or there's the story of the shoemaker who lived in a country where the king had ordered hard work and no play. When the urge grew too strong he would briefly cross the border into the neighboring land of good king Miroslav for a song and dance. The censors intended the hard work and no fun land to be the West but of course the delighted public had a completely different interpretation. Also, in one scene the king spies on his people through a pair of binoculars saying he must know what they're doing and how they feel in order to serve them well. In Once upon a Time there was a King the king says to his wife "By God if I only had a fleet you would be its admiral". During the film's premiere this brought the house down, since in those days rumor had it that the leading party ideologist and communist minister Vaclav Kopecky never did anything important without first consulting his wife.

It was a game that film-makers played with the censors of the time, and as a result you get a story within a story. There's plenty to amuse grown-up viewers besides the fairytale itself, Tyden says. For many years film-makers seemed to have a conspiratorial relationship with their public. And in those days the public was adept at reading between the lines or discerning ridicule in any form. So often the censors' work was counterproductive. A fairytale is difficult to control. To begin with the adored central figure is the princess , bourgeois as that seemed to censors, and making a princess say something totally out of character was so ridiculous that the censors often just gave up on it. As a result we have a wonderful archive of fairytales and I for one have most of them on video........

With just two more days left till Xmas, there's a frenzy of last minute preparations. People are dragging overloaded shopping bags with presents for their loved ones and buying cartloads of food for the holidays. In the hectic atmosphere many women have opted to buy the traditional Xmas cookies instead of baking them and many families have made the transition to an artificial Xmas tree. Singing in the home will, in most cases, be replaced by the latest Xmas CD. And by all accounts the most popular present this year will be the mobile phone. Mobile operators are reaping the profits of a staggering ad campaign. But what was Xmas like in the past? Tyden has covered the entire century reporting on Xmas decade by decade.

In 1900 most Xmas presents were hand made. Grown ups would give each other handkerchiefs or tobacco boxes and children could expect carved wooden toys and handmade dresses from their parents. Xmas was above all a Christian holiday.

In 1917 Xmas was marked by poverty and sadness. Not only was it hard to put food on the table but many chairs around the table remained empty. The war was taking a heavy toll and it was a time of prayers for loved ones.

In 1930 people were enjoying themselves. A higher living standard was reflected not only in the variety of Xmas dishes but in the number of presents given and received. The lady of the house would get twelve pairs of white gloves and a hat. The master could expect gold cuff links. Presents were not meant to be practical. One only gave practical gifts to the servants.

In 1940 the time of prosperity had been replaced by hunger and fear. The war brought fresh suffering and the coupon rationing system did not provide much opportunities for gift-giving. Those who did not smoke could exchange their cigarette coupons for a jacket. Butchers would get pajamas for a roll of salami and shoemakers would swap a pair of shoes for extra food rations.

In 1950 the communist regime frowned on Xmas celebrations. Celebrating the holiday in the privacy of their homes, grown-ups gave each other practical gifts, children got books and toys. The communists attempted to replace the Xmas tradition with the Russian Ded Maroz who arrives on New Year's Eve with a bag-full of presents for good children. A quote from President Zapotocky's Xmas address to the nation in 1952 is priceless.

'Ded Moroz comes to us from the East and there is not just one star guiding him. No, he is guided on his way to us by many RED stars. Stars shining on our factories, proclaiming that your fathers and mothers have fulfilled their five year plans. The more red stars there are the merrier our holidays will be - for this is a celebration of an honest year's work. What Ded Moroz brings in his bag will depend on how your parents have worked.' the former Czechoslovak president told the nation, back in 1952.

In spite of the effort, Czech children didn't take to the idea of the Soviet Ded Moroz guided by the red stars and clung firmly to the notion of little Jesus who gives gifts at Xmas.

In 1960 Xmas was finally accepted by the communist authorities and the holiday turned more commercial. People cued up for goods and imports from Poland or East Germany were considered an enormous coup. Skis and sport clothes were popular gifts.

In 1970 people were feeling the bite of the normalization era. Xmas was a time when Czechs could look forward to oranges and bananas -rare goods on the market -even though they needed to cue up for hours to get them. Jeans were a hit that year but the coveted Western product were only available in special shops set up for the communist top brass.

By 1980 the Christian character of this holiday had been somewhat revived. More people dared to attend church mass. More Western goods were filtering into the country and the Xmas hit of 1980 was the Czech translation of The Adventures of Pooh Bear and The tales of the Bullerby Children.

In 1990 Xmas was celebrated in a dizzy atmosphere of new-found freedom. Western goods had flooded the market and in an effort to make up for all they never had or experienced people emptied out their bank accounts buying household appliances, CD players, expensive Western goods and cartloads of food. Others took off to see the world. After four decades of restricted travel they weren't going to sit around at home. Everything was new and exciting and the commercial factor was stronger than ever.

Xmas is not any less commercial now -but there are still people who lavish time and patience on making it special. If you need proof, and are listening to us in the Czech Republic ,visit one of the many exhibitions of home made nativity scenes which are open this time of year.

Some are wood carved nativity scenes that several generations have contributed to perfecting - another stunning example is a minute nativity scene placed in a nutshell. But then I'm sure you would find many similar examples of this in your own vicinity, wherever you may be right now. Have a Merry Xmas and may it turn out to be just as you like it.

22-12-2000